On the day I turned 37, I got two cards in the mail. One was from my ex-husband, who, four years ago, left me with a small child and a large mortgage to chase a brunet who raised German short-haired pointers.
The other was from a blues guitarist I once dated who loved oral sex, but refused to take things any further.
The card from my ex said: "I'll always be here for you. Unless I have a date." For a moment I thought this somewhat-friendly gesture might signal his desire to rekindle the marital flame. But then I remembered that he had recently split up with his girlfriend (not the dog lady -- this time, a blond), and that he is a man in constant need of a female audience. I reminded myself that as soon as he got involved with someone else (next week, a redhead?) he'd start hating me again, because he still loves me.
Things were never that intense between me and the guitarist, a wiry Vietnam vet who claims he was once a government assassin. His guitar playing could make me weep, but his neuroses were alarming -- he wouldn't eat in restaurants, carried a pistol at all times and would fool around for hours but never consummate the act. This was OK at first, but then it began to feel like rejection. I finally broke it off, but we remained friends.
His card, appropriately, started with a joke about blow jobs. But then he said his house burned down and he lost everything except his guitar, a 1951 Fender Telecaster. But that wasn't all: His band split up, he had no work and he was living with his parents -- stresses that had caused him to drop 22 pounds. That last part really upset me. Despite intense efforts, I have never been able to shed more than 20 pounds, even after weeks of chitosan and Slim-Fast. I hate men.
I especially hate the one who didn't send me a card or call. The one I really like. The guy who dumped me, last month, by phone while I was on vacation with my 5-year-old son at a tacky, family-friendly campground.
The breakup happened when I anxiously called him from a phone tacked to the outer wall of the campground's laundry room, a converted chicken coop that reeked of bleach, Bounce and cigarettes.
As Bill was doing his long-distance kiss-off on my dime, my son was gleefully hurling sand at the pinch-cheeked kid from the next cabin. A mosquito was devouring my left buttock right through my shorts, and two men who looked like they belonged on the set of "Deliverance" were hovering around the phone like crows over roadkill. I was hurt and heartbroken but I feigned politeness and understanding, and not just for Bill's sake. God forbid my son -- let alone Daryl and Daryl -- should see me cry. But my composure had deteriorated by the time my birthday arrived the next week, leaving me depressed and pissed off.
I decided to call Bill to tell him this. I wanted to hear his voice, and to tell him that both his timing and his excuses sucked. I suspected he was seeing his old girlfriend again, a woman he called the Latina. The Latina and Bill had had an explosive on-again, off-again affair, fueled in part by the Latina's involvement with another man, a psychotic psychiatrist who followed Bill around and left hang-up calls on his answering machine. The Latina was deceptive and destructive, Bill said, and he couldn't figure out why he had been so seduced by her. But I could.
I knew about this kind of kamikaze relationship because I had recently quit one. Mine was with a Polish carpenter who said he loved me for a year but pretended not to know me in public. He did bad things to my self-esteem but good things for my kitchen, so I put up with it for a while. He was safe for me to love because I didn't really like him.
It was pretty much over when I met Bill, and I was ready for something real. Bill was through with the Latina, too. Or so he said. So when he later broke up with me, alleging that he really liked me but was not sure he wanted a serious relationship with a "prime-time player" like me, I smelled a rat. A bitchy, bilingual rodent. She had probably smelled me, too, and was shaking her snaky tail for him again. Since Bill and I live 350 miles apart, she had plenty of opportunity.
I knew that what had gone on between Bill and me was real, that he hadn't been playing or having sport sex, because it was more than sex. He laughed at my jokes, loved my hair and looked at me like I was the perfect combination of Grace Kelly and Grace Jones. He liked my balls and my brains. He told me so.
I liked his cocky attitude and his 750 cc road bike, even if it wasn't a Harley. He wore cowboy boots and tied his last vestiges of hair into a chintzy ponytail. He lit his Lucky Strikes with a Zippo and curled his tongue when he inhaled. He's big, bearded and burly, with a smooth voice, an abrasive personality and insistent fingers. He is just as competitive as I am. We are both writers and I still don't know who's better.
We met at a party while I was visiting a friend in Washington, D.C., where Bill wrote features for a national news service. The attraction was immediate and obvious. Things got hot and heavy fast.
We drank and flirted and left the party to walk the steamy streets of Glover Park. The first kiss took place outside a darkened brownstone. He sat, spread-legged, on a brick retaining wall, boots splayed, and grabbed my waist with both hands. He was a full foot taller, so that as he sat our lips and pelvises met. He used a touch of force as he pulled me in. There was nothing bashful about his kiss, and nothing bashful about my response.
"My, my," he said when we finally surfaced for air. "My, my."
He certainly was expressive.
Then he got direct. "I want to make love to you," he implored, in a sexy Southern accent. "Tonight."
Sleeping with men I barely know is not my style, but I liked him and would be in town, sans child, for only a few days. You're an adult, I told myself. It's the '90s. Hence my next question.
"Gotta condom?" I asked, locking my fingers behind his neck.
He smiled and patted his pocket.
"Well then, cowboy," I said. "Let's go."
We made love and talked nonstop the rest of the weekend. Then came the marathon long-distance phone calls, and a lost weekend at a tiny bed and breakfast not too far from my New Haven, Conn., home.
One morning he told me: "You get a certain look in your eyes when you come. A look of dismay."
"Dismay?" I asked, pretending not to know what he was talking about. But I knew the look because I felt the feeling. It had to do with surrender and loss of control -- with letting him into my vulnerable and tender places. Dismay was the perfect word. He didn't miss much.
He had a certain look, too. His eyes rolled up and his lids slid down. He'd repeat my name and grip my shoulders. Afterward, he'd kiss me real hard then real soft. It was so right that it felt like labor when he dumped me.
So on my birthday, when my pain and anger turned to depression, when I was eating nachos and Butterfingers and you could dress a salad with the oil in my hair, I called to tell him this. And ask about the Latina.
He told me they had some "unresolved issues" to work out. (Translation: He was seeing her again.)
"You're an asshole," I said.
"You're probably right," he replied, "But our relationship is a whirlwind, kid. We're not 60 percent players. I could see us married in a year if we keep seeing each other. You and your son, you're major league. Latina or no Latina, I'm not sure I'm ready for that dive."
I couldn't decide how much of this to believe, because his lambada with the Latina, seductive but destructive, was like any other addictive behavior. Until you eliminate the compulsion, you can't judge anything else.
Then he told me that if he ever came back to me, he wanted to come clean, without the scent of another woman. "And if I'm lucky enough to find you still there," he said, "you have 10 minutes to kick the shit out of me and call me every name in the book."
"Get a real life," I snorted. "And stop rehearsing for a B movie."
Then I hung up. I can't stand it when a man tells me I'm great and then dumps me.
I tried to think of ways to win him back. But I knew that once you've been with a man, you cannot trick him into wanting you. He can run away, but he'll never come back unless he misses your taste on his tongue. Or the look in your eyes when you come.
I took comfort in believing I'd be difficult to forget. Maybe he'd call after the Last Tango With the Latina. Maybe I'd still want him.
When I crawled into bed that night, I let my tears loose. I cried because I was lonely, and because my son was only 5 but knew all about dating, custody and overnight bags. I cried because I had stretch marks and would never be 21 again. And I cried because it was my birthday, and nobody loved me.
At least not a man. And I hated wanting a man so much.
When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed about Bill and the Latina. They were having sex. It was feverish and wild, but he stayed swollen and unfulfilled because he could not conquer her. He thought this was because she was dating the psychiatrist, but he was wrong. The Latina could not give in to him because she had nothing to give. That is why she needed two men. She took from one to give to the other. She needed to feed on the triangle, inciting each man to prove he was better. Bill knew he was better than the psychiatrist, but felt compelled to convince the Latina. The bed was his proving ground. His hands and tongue were everywhere, and he pushed with everything he had. With the deepest part of himself, he probed for something that wasn't there, something that was tender and vulnerable. He attempted, valiantly but in vain, to cause a certain look in her eyes. A look of surrender. A look of dismay.
When I woke up, I was pleased with myself for this angst-induced analysis, but aggravated at wasting delicious dream time. I preferred it when my subconscious constructed more pleasing scenarios -- like my dreams about making love to Sam Shepard, or hiring a full-time Merry Maid.
But I forced myself out of bed, nuked a bagel and turned on the "Today" show. The drone of the morning clones drowned out my distress, and my mood began to lift. Birthdays are a bitch, I realized. They magnify everything.
I decided to have a regular day. I would spend quality time with my son, write lifeless brochure copy and do 20 minutes on my Nordic Track. My mailbox would be exorcised of the ghosts of men who loved me but left me, and would contain only past-due notices and solicitations for replacement windows. I vowed to make no long-distance calls in search of truth. I would find a new form of self-torture.